Local educators attend MSP conferences
From Staff Reports
Math and science curriculum is a focus nationally, and two Coweta County educators have attended national meetings about changes and program opportunities in math, science and engineering.
Donald White, science content specialist for the Coweta County School System, attended the Math-Science Partnership Regional Conference at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans in March. Lynn Skinner, math content specialist for the local system, attended the second MSP Conference of the year in April at the Palmer House in Chicago.
At the opening session of the Chicago conference on April 18, Michael Lach and Pat O’Connell Johnson spoke on how U.S. Department of Education reforms are impacting math and science education. Johnson is the MSP team leader with the U.S. Department of Education.
Michael Lach is serving as a special consultant to U.S. DOE.
Johnson noted school systems across the country are “implementing the common core in both mathematics and science.” Johnson spoke of Pres. Obama’s placement of STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – as a priority.
“It’s an exciting time,” she said, adding that there is a strong alignment between “the president’s agenda and” the agenda of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Lach has been involved in education in a number of areas. He taught physics through the Teach for America program in New Orleans at one time and has been the curriculum director for Chicago’s schools.
He worked directly with the U.S. DOE for awhile and is now in Chicago again. “We didn’t want to lose him. He still works with us as a consultant,” Johnson said.
Lach spoke directly to the educators in the room, saying they will play a major role in whatever good comes from education reform in math and science. “The Department of Education can only do what Congress allows it to do,” he said.
“The reason we’re doing this – and spending the time here with you to talk about it – is fundamentally because our job is to empower you all. We can’t change this stuff from Washington,” Lach said.
He said it is individuals workings in schools and colleges – “working with teachers and kids” – who are important. “That’s what’s really going to make a difference,” Lach said.
Lach acknowledged that in some school systems, mathematics and science are not priorities. “Too often those kinds of decisions are not made with people like you who have really strong content background and know how that content background relates to kids,” he said.
One of the values of the MSP conference is that specialists in math and science can gather information and take it back to their systems to share.
There are four key DOE programs that relate to STEM – Race to the Top, ESEA flexibility, Invest in Innovation and the Teacher Incentive Fund.
Race to Top is “the signature initiative of this administration,” Lach said. States have been offered funding, through a competitive process. Race to the Top aims “to get states to move in a reform agenda,” Lach said.
Other states are also being affected as Race to the Top reforms are implemented in participating states. Although funding has declined with successive years, there is money allocated for the fourth year of the program.
“Even the ones who didn’t win, there ‘s an awful lot of reform that’s happened,” Lach said. “Lots of laws and regulations were changed. We’ve got common math and science standards now in 39 states – which two or three years ago would have been unthinkable.”
Much of the data being generated by Race to the Top projects can be accessed at www.rtt-apr.us.
A goal of Race has been to be “as transparent as possible about what is actually happening,” Lach said. The program is generating reports on “the work going on in each of these states” and “annual updates by every state in what they’re doing in STEM education,” Lach said.
Different states are using Race funds in different ways to promote STEM learning. Some started “whole new schools” focusing on those topics, and others offered advanced placement classes or set up task forces to look for innovative ways to approach the topics, Lach said.
“You can see various aspects of the strategy that people chose to do,” Lach said.
“There are some pretty interesting lessons learned in these reports,” he said – both in successes and “some of the problems people have had.” Lach said it can be hard to get different governmental entities to work together.
In Massachusetts, he noted, professional development on STEM topics was offered, but teacher response was tepid. “It’s not always going to go just like it’s planned,” he said.
The mechanism itself can be daunting. Lach said officials in North Carolina and Ohio reported “taking all this money and moving out to contracts, to requests for proposals, was challenging.”
Phase III of Race was announced this past fall. “The money went to the next set of states that applied. STEM was still a priority,” Lach said. “There’s a lot of focus on curriculum and professional development on a statewide level.”
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act – more commonly known as No Child Left Behind – is being tweaked. “We have known for long time that No Child Left Behind is not working as people wanted,” Lach said.
He said “the flexibility package that’s coming up” will offer some options for STEM education. States can request waivers from one section of the law if they agree to comply with the others.
There is “a very elaborate process for states to propose and then negotiate these waivers,” he said, but the waivers could take on many different forms. “There’s no limit on the number of states that can get these waivers. All 50 states could get a waiver if they so choose.”
Lach noted that in many states, “part of their waiver proposal has been to include science as part of the accountability framework.” States are accomplishing that goal “in slightly different ways,” he said.
Lach explained the concept of Invest in Innovation funds. “In the education system, there really isn’t a great way to bring great ideas to scale,” he said.
I3 aims to repeat success stories. “The more evidence you have,” Lach said, the easier it will be to get funded through the program.
“You got it to work in one situation. See if you can replicate that,” he said.
I3 aims to “create huge capacity to move these things ahead,” Lach said. The program is set up so that 22 percent of funding goes directly to STEM projects.
Still, there are many more applicants than there are dollars. “We didn’t have money to fund all the great quality proposals we received,” Lach said. “It’s very competitive.” He said STEM leaders in school systems across the country “have worked really hard to come up with robust evaluation designs.”
He encouraged more I3 applications. He said applications have been received so far, not only from school districts, but from universities and museums. “I invite you to look at their proposals,” Lach told the MSP attendees.
The Teacher Incentive Fund supports programs that develop and implement sustainable performance based compensation systems for teachers, principals, and other personnel in high-need schools. The goal is to increase both the effectiveness of good teachers and students achievement.
When he was with the Chicago schools, Lach said he had a hard time getting the best math teachers to teach the basic algebra course. “They wanted to teach the rich white kids” higher level math courses, he said.
TIF offers a financial incentive for teachers to work with students in schools with lower achievement levels and to help them obtain as much knowledge as possible. TIF has a specific STEM component “to create cadre of great” teachers in science and math, Lach said.
Putting experienced, effective teachers in those situations will also enable those with skill and experience to “help the new teachers or the teachers who are struggling,” he explained.
A goal is to “increase the capacity of everything moving ahead,” Lach said. “We know that’s the direction things have to go.”
The challenges of ramping up STEM learning cannot be overcome “without attending to the broader pieces of the system,” Lach acknowledged. “We also know implementation is really tough.”
Speaking generally of the STEM focus, Lach said, “There are lots of people who are learning how to do this really, really well. We still have an awful long way to go.”
In part because of the president’s support of STEM, Lach said he believes support for improved science and math programs will continue. “It’s pretty core to what we’ve been doing,” he said. “I think you’ll see even more in that direction, not less.”
Johnson has been with MSP since the program started. “It’s like my baby. It’s grown and evolved and flourished across the country,” she said.
She also commented briefly on the conferences in New Orleans and Chicago. “We have over 300 people here. We had over 420 people or so in New Orleans so it’s been a robust year for the MSP program.”